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In a funny scene from “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,” Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, takes a huge ball of tangled Christmas lights and tosses it to his son: “Got a little knot here. You can work on that.”
Many of us can relate to that situation this time of year. As great as holiday lights look, they can be a pain to install, especially when you're dealing with a messy mass of wires and bulbs.
But it doesn't have to be that way. There are neater, more organized ways to store your lights, methods that don't involve stuffing them in a plastic bag where they inevitably turn into one big complicated knot.
From plastic bins and paper towel tubes to empty wire spools and homemade cardboard holders, you have several options to safely and smartly store Christmas lights throughout the year. Professional lighting installers, decorators and homeowners say choosing the best storage solution depends on such factors as the style of your lighting, bulb size, material and how many lights you have.
Kim and Randy Franzen love putting festive touches on their west Omaha home every holiday season. Kim handles the inside, all aglow in sparkling lights draped on eight Christmas trees scattered throughout their home. Randy's in charge of the outside, which includes a 30-foot spruce tree covered in 17,000 red lights.
“I can't stand it if there's a hole or bare area. I've got to cover it up,” Randy Franzen said of his approach to lighting the giant spruce. The tree is the centerpiece of the family's elaborate holiday display on their home at 2546 S. 186th Circle.
In addition to the towering tree, the home's exterior, bushes and archways are adorned with thousands of lights. Instead of hiring someone, the Franzens do the work themselves: stringing lights up, taking them down, then packing and storing everything away until next season. Come January, all those lights go into storage bins in the attic. The goal is to keep everything tidy and tangle-free, no matter how long it takes.
Randy Franzen said his technique with Christmas lights is similar to coiling an extension cord. He holds a strand of lights in one hand, wraps it from elbow to hand and repeats the process until he's done. He places the coiled bundles inside big plastic storage tubs.
It takes twice as much time and work as throwing them in willy-nilly, but it pays off.
“They're going to come out the way you put them in, so I take the extra time to put them away neatly,” he said.
For homeowner Rob Daniel, taking the time and effort to keep miles of holiday lights free of knots is worth it. More than 75,000 lights adorn the trees, lawn, bushes, windows, chimney, roof and exterior of his southwest Omaha home at 6510 S. 92nd St. The display, which he does himself, includes dozens of illuminated candy canes, reindeer, snowmen, Santas, snowflakes, poinsettias and other elements.
“I don't put anything out that doesn't light up,” Daniel said.
Each year, he adds more and more lights. His approach to decorating is to hang as many lights as possible. The task starts in early October and takes about 80 hours. By Halloween, kids in the neighborhood start asking him when he's going to turn on the lights.
When it's time to take them down, Daniel arranges the lights by color, folds three strands at a time into a bundle, secures them with zip ties, then stacks them in the attic above the garage. It's repetitive and requires patience, he said, but worth it. When he takes them out of storage, all he has to do is remove the tie, and the lights are ready to be installed.
Other homeowners wind strands of lights around paper towel tubes or empty plastic spools once used for electrical wire or ribbon. A piece of sturdy cardboard works, too. Use scissors to cut a small slit at each end of the cardboard. Secure one end of the lights in a slit, wrap lights around the cardboard and secure the other end in the opposite slit.
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Doing it yourself may be practical when dealing with a small amount of lights, but businesses and community groups bring in lighting experts for large-scale holiday displays.
Trees in a 40-block area of downtown Omaha are home to 1 million lights (10,000 strands) during the annual Holiday Lights Festival, but the rest of the year, they're stored at a business in Council Bluffs called Christmas Decor, said Chris Stangl, the company's operations manager.
Festival organizers contract the company to set up and take down the festival lights. To minimize tangling, crews wrap them by hand into balls, roughly the size of a softball, Stangl said. The balled lights go into 35-gallon plastic bins, which then are placed inside specially built 4-foot-by-6-foot wooden boxes.
The company reuses many of the lights the following year and throws away damaged ones.
“We try to save what we can,” Stangl said.
Wrapping individual strands of lights into a ball is a quick, easy and compact method, and it's what Stangl does with his lights at home. He recommends storing garland lights in sealed containers because the material often attracts mice, who like to build nests in them.
At Midtown Crossing near 32nd and Farnam Streets, officials store some holiday decorations on-site, including lighted star bursts. The development's 100,000-plus lights, which are on display through the second week of January, are stored off-site at two Omaha companies, Holidynamics and Brite Ideas Decorating.
Whether it's for a residential or commercial job, storing lights properly takes time, but it's well worth it when you go to hang them the following year, said Travis Freeman, owner and president of Brite Ideas Decorating. His company installs, takes down and stores lights and also sells lights, decorations and accessories.
When rolling lights into a ball, leave the male plug (the end with conductors that go into the wall) exposed to allow for easier testing, Freeman said. Consider keeping lights in the basement or other easy-to-access area, preferably inside your home. If you store lights at room temperature, Freeman said, they'll unravel easier than when they're cold.
Plastic bins or cardboard boxes work fine for storage, Freeman said, but plastic tubs sometimes will crack along the top corners if you keep them in a cold garage or shed. Whatever container you use, it's a good ideal to label it and make sure it's not too big or heavy or otherwise too difficult to pick up.
Many consumers today use LED lights, which have plastic bulbs and are more durable than incandescent versions, he said. But if you're storing holiday lights with glass bulbs, shape the strands into a ball and wrap them in newspaper to help keep bulbs from breaking.